Sunday, April 08, 2007

Alger Hiss

An "Event Release" by NYU touting a conference entitled "Alger Hiss and History" seems to suggest that significant questions remain concerning Hiss's guilt:
The 1948 Alger Hiss case was a major moment in post-World War II America that reinforced Cold War ideology and accelerated America’s late-1940’s turn to the right. When Hiss, one of the nation’s more visible New Dealers, was accused of spying for the Soviet Union and convicted of perjury, his case was seen as one of the most significant trials of the 20th century, helping to discredit the New Deal, legitimize the red scare, and set the stage for the rise of Joseph McCarthy.

As scholars have gained access to the archives in the former Soviet Union and more U.S. documents have been declassified, there has been renewed debate about the Hiss case itself and the larger issues of repression, civil liberties, and internal security that many believe speak to current public policy and discussions.

With all due respect, there is no "debate" about the Hiss case any more. As Powerline has pointed out, the literature documenting the fact that Hiss was a Soviet agent is overwhelming. Among the books that Powerline cites, Allen Weinstein's Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case and Sam Tanenhaus's Whittaker Chambers: A Biography are superb. Weinstein's The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era and Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr provide valuable information about the stunning breadth of Soviet espionage in America during the 1930s and 1940s. Another book, not mentioned by Powerline, that illuminates the period is Steven T. Usdin's fascinating Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley (New Haven: Yale University Press 2005).

On a personal note, a number of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Martin Tytell, the man commissioned by Hiss's attorneys to duplicate the prosecution's Woodstock typewriter, and his wife Pearl Tytell. They were working out of a small office on Fulton Street, in lower Manhattan, every inch of which was covered with typewriters, typewriter parts, piles of paper and other miscellaneous junk. The advent of the computer had decimated Martin's business. Pearl was a questioned document examiner, and I wound up using her as an expert witness in a case that went to trial. She must have been almost eighty at the time, sharp, feisty and tough as nails behind a proper exterior. The opposing attorney never laid a glove on her. Here's to you, Pearl!

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